It’s International Women’s Day and what better way to mark it than to review a book that’s all about how all your favourite writers have written femslash for the past thousand years?
In Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature, Emma Donoghue examines how desire between women has been portrayed: from Ovid to Shakespeare to pulp fiction and Rubyfruit Jungle, Donoghue shows that authors have been writing about desire between women in various forms for ages. The book is divided into six main sections:
Travesties: Cross-dressing (whether by a woman or a man) causes the “accident” of same-sex desire
Inseparables: Two passionate friends defy the forces trying to part them.
Rivals: A woman and a man compete for a woman’s heart.
Monsters: A wicked woman tries to seduce and destroy an innocent one.
Detection: The discovery of a crime turns out to be a discovery of same-sex desire.
Out: A woman’s life is changed by the realization that she loves her own sex.
The book also includes pages of notes, a bibliography (separated into primary and secondary sources), a recommended reading list, and an index.
This book covers a lot of ground and quotes a ton of sources (some Donoghue translated herself from French) and it’s written in a very accessible style. This is not a dry academic tome, it’s a very open, friendly, and informative book. Even the typeface (a variant of Garamond) was selected for being “clear and open” with “elegance and precision”.
Honestly, this is one of those books where a review can’t really do it justice. One thing I loved about this book was the sheer number of “surprises” contained therein. If you think that the man always wins the affection of the woman in “Rivals” plots, you would be wrong. Some older stories are surprisingly modern, such as the epic poem Ide and Olive (c. 1311, translated into English in 1534) where Ide cross-dresses and ends up marrying Lady Olive, who even after discovering that she is a woman, proclaims that they are “wedded together” and it’s only until the last minute that a (literal) deus ex machina happens and Ide becomes a man, thus giving readers a more “palatable” ending. Other texts leave the reader with the impression that the creators were being very tongue-in-cheek as they dismissed the idea that their work was about women loving other women. It’s these little surprises, these things that I was honestly not expecting to find, that really make this book great.
I also like how Donoghue chooses to discuss this trend in literature in relatively neutral terms. Note that the subtitle of the book says “desire between women”, for the most part, Donoghue chooses to discuss relationships between women that may or may not be romantic or sexual in nature, and she chooses the term “same-sex desire” to speak of the varieties of relationships between women where many scholars use an exhaustive dictionary of terms (“romantic friendship”, “lesbian love” etc.) making the book more open and inclusive in general.
As far as complaints and/or criticisms, the focus of the book is Western literature and so it’s mostly white men writing about women who love other women (although works people of colour, queer women, and queer women of colour are also included as a matter of course). There’s a little on transgender readings of particular stories but not a whole lot. I also feel that I should mention that while there are some surprising happy endings in this book, considering how heavily censored same-sex relationships were until recently, there are dramatic death scenes, murders, suicides, the occasional rape, and often the impression that the creators figured that if they needed to follow a convention and kill off their same-sex couple, they might as well make their exit as dramatic and flashy as possible.
As I said before, there’s no way I can do justice to this book with just the one review. Suffice it to say that if you are at all interested in this topic, you need this book in your library. Even if you aren’t a literature snob (like myself, I swear I have like an allergy to anything that isn’t genre fiction) you should still pick this one up, because it’s great.